Does International Intervention Have a Future?

Louise Fréchette

Published:  Toronto Globe and Mail, 20 April 2015


Lloyd Axworthy is right to take pride in the role Canada played in the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept.  The proposition that international relations should be guided by concerns for the welfare of human beings rather than the interests of States reflects a bold and generous vision that has inspired many worthy international initiatives since the end of the Cold War.

The question is whether this “human” security concept has, in fact, become the norm in international relations and whether the experience so far, particularly with R2P, has proved its usefulness.

Lloyd Axworthy’s assessment seems overly optimistic for two reasons.

First, R2P is viewed with considerable suspicion in the developing world. It is seen as a one-way street where rich and powerful countries have the right to come to the rescue of people in the South, but are free themselves from foreign intervention in their internal affairs. A similar whiff of double standards is now coloring their perception of the ICC to the point that African countries, for instance, are less and less inclined to cooperate with the Court.

Rightly or wrongly, most countries are loath to meddle in the internal affairs of their neighbours for fear of being subjected eventually to the same medicine. True, R2P has played a role in the response to various crisis in recent years but we should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that the concept enjoys strong support. Most interventions have been motivated by traditional security concerns at least as much as by a desire to protect people from terrible exactions.  

As emerging countries and the rest of the developing world seek to play a more prominent role in world affairs, it is far from certain that they will privilege a “human” security agenda over traditional security and sovereignty concerns. They will no doubt find comfort in the company of China and Russia on this.

Second, the practice of R2P has turned out to be extremely complex and difficult. Yes, the Kosovo intervention was successful but it required a heavy and sustained international presence for more than a decade, which would be hard to replicate in a larger and more populous territory.  It also extracted its own human toll on the Serbian population of Kosovo who either had to leave the territory or remained confined to small enclaves.

The intervention in Libya may have saved the inhabitants of Benghazi from Ghadafi’s bloody revenge but, as wisely argued by the very Commission that gave birth to R2P, an intervention should not do more harm than good. The situation in Libya today and the negative fall-out in neighbouring countries make it hard to argue that the intervention was, on balance, beneficial. The first lesson many people have drawn from the intervention in Libya is that it should not have happened at all.

R2P and the ICC are manifestations of a broader agenda, which emerged at the end of the Cold War and which aimed at protecting human rights, promoting democracy and supporting good governance worldwide. The West championed this agenda quite successfully at a time when Russia was weak, China was absorbed by its internal economic reform, and most developing countries were highly dependent on foreign aid (and the conditions attached to it).

Times have changed. Western influence is challenged by the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia and an increasingly diverse and capable developing world. In order to effectively promote and protect our most cherished values, we will have to find willing partners outside our traditional Western circles. We have been very good at preaching our own gospel but have too often failed to listen and to learn from people who do not share our past and look at the future through different lenses. This, I believe, is what Louise Arbour had in mind when she said we needed to show more empathy, this capacity to put oneself in another person’s shoes. She is absolutely right. Without it, we are unlikely to forge solid alliances and build the strong common agenda we will need to defend our values in the future.

The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a period of great innovation and experimentation in the conduct of international relations. R2P and the ICC are but two examples of a more pro-active, intrusive approach to dealing with conflict situations. Now would be a good time to pause and assess the results of nearly 25 years of interventionism, preferably with a strong in-put from those who have been at the receiving end of our good intentions.


Louise Arbour has it wrong

By Lloyd Axworthy

Published:  The Globe and Mail, 13 April

Louise Arbour is a distinguished Canadian whose views generally merit respect. But her recent public denunciations of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) are ill-founded, based on faulty information and questionable assessments.

In reality, both the ICC and R2P are innovative international efforts that aim to advance the rule of law and the protection of civilians – goals widely supported by most Canadians and desperately important in promoting a more humane world. They are not the failures she proclaims.

Perhaps Ms. Arbour’s peripheral involvement in the creation of both the court and R2P has led to her misunderstandings. She played little role in the Canadian effort to negotiate the Rome Statute, which brought the court into being. The heavy lifting was done by a consortium of skilled Canadian diplomats, working with like-minded allies and deeply committed NGOs.

Nor was she involved in the development of R2P, a concept that arose from the international intervention in Kosovo – an initiative that stopped the mass killing and expulsions of tens of thousands. In its aftermath, Canada established an international commission to consider how better to respond to atrocities perpetrated by governments. The result was R2P, later adopted by world leaders at a UN summit in 2005 through skillful Canadian diplomacy.

Ms. Arbour now seems to insist that these hard-won gains in establishing rules and practices to protect civilians from mass atrocity and in building an international criminal justice system must be replaced by “empathy.” But to abandon the court and R2P in favour of a “feeling” would replace norms and standards with kindly thoughts to the detriment of those whose lives often depend on a rules-based system.

One very positive consequence of the court and R2P is an evolving set of international norms based on the “human security” of individuals, rather than the “national security” of states. Just recently we marked the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, when UN peacekeepers stood by while 10,000 Bosnians were murdered. At the time, peacekeepers had no mandate to protect people. A year earlier, in Rwanda, they did not show up at all.

That has now changed. Peacekeepers on UN missions around the world are actively protecting people, embodying the R2P principles. In the Central African Republic, a UN-mandated force of African and French troops has forestalled what was ominously emerging as a genocide. In Mali, a partnership under the UN mandate of African and European peacekeepers has pushed back an extremist faction that was threatening mass murder.

Of course, the great tragedy of Syria arising from the Security Council stalemate demonstrates that R2P cannot provide a solution in every case. No one can reasonably claim that it is a panacea. And the Syrian catastrophe says more about the weakness of current political leaders and the breakdown of international consensus than it does about the soundness of R2P.

Nor can the abandonment of R2P be justified based on the chaos that followed the Libyan intervention. There are, to be sure, lessons to be learned about how interventions, on those rare occasions when they are authorized, should be conducted and followed up. But Ms. Arbour should not doubt that Moammar Gadhafi would have made good on his threat to slaughter tens of thousands in Benghazi, had the intervention not occurred.

We have work to do in improving the implementation of R2P. As I witnessed in a recent sojourn to the UN, there are efforts under way to reform and enhance UN capacities for peacekeeping, and for rebuilding failed states.

R2P remains alive and well and has achieved much in its short 10 years. I believe that is so because it is broadly recognized as the most humane and effective way to muster a collective response to the worst kinds of conscience-shocking crimes.

As for the ICC, there is a renewed sense of purpose with its changed leadership. The new chief justice is a widely respected, highly capable woman, as is the new chief prosecutor. Each has already taken steps to strengthen international support for the ICC’s crucial role of bringing to justice those who commit crimes against humanity. No longer do the powerful have immunity from prosecution.

It is disappointing that Louise Arbour has lost faith in these efforts to reform international institutions at a time when there is a need for strong voices in their support.

Lloyd Axworthy is a former foreign minister of Canada.

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